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Ahmadinejad Appearance Prompts Criticism of Columbia University Public-Speaking Decisions

Columbia University said it would welcome any notable figure visiting the United States — even Adolf Hitler himself — to speak to students and faculty at the Ivy League college.

But there are those who question what the New York college's standards are. They ask why a school that will not allow an ROTC program to be part of its curriculum would allow Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of America’s avowed enemies, onto its campus.

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Critics wonder why the leader of a nation that exports terrorism is allowed to speak, but the leader of an American organization that seeks to secure U.S. borders was not.

On Monday, Columbia will play host to Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust "a myth," encouraged the destruction of Israel and who leads a nation that has supported Hezbollah terrorists in the Middle East and insurgents in Iraq.

The Iranian president will address students and faculty at a forum only days after Columbia retracted a speaking invitation to the president of the Minuteman Project, a controversial citizens' group that seeks to secure America's borders from illegal immigrants, even going so far as to try building a fence along the border with Mexico.

Minuteman founder and president Jim Gilchrist said he now feels "sweet and sour" toward Columbia after an invitation to participate in an Oct. 4 talk was taken away last week. Gilchrist appeared at Columbia last year, but his speech was thwarted when students and other opponents stormed the stage as he took the podium.

"I've always respected Columbia, but I've relegated it to a gutter school after that incident," Gilchrist said in a phone interview. "They've stopped free speech. That's worse than killing people. With that, you can kill an entire nation."

But Gilchrist — an ardent supporter of the First Amendment — actually backs the university's decision to host Ahmadinejad.

"I'm defending his appearance," he said. "I think he should speak. To say no, he cannot speak, is to support exactly the same thing that happened to me."

Gilchrist added that he wouldn't back Ahmadinejad’s appearance if the United States were at war with Iran.

He believes Columbia's administrators are good about fostering free speech but give too much power to "radical" groups in determining who gets a forum on campus.

A student and faculty group called the Columbia Political Union initially voted to ask Gilchrist back this year, but it was ultimately the organization that reversed the vote and rescinded his invitation. The CPU was apparently not a key factor in the Ahmadinejad visit, which is sponsored by Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and is part of the university's annual World Leaders Forum.

The CPU explained its decision not to go forward with the Gilchrist appearance in a statement issued on its Web site on Sept. 18.

"We had hoped that it might be possible to have him and others involved in the events of last October on the same stage, engaged in a civil but challenging discussion," the CPU said. "It has become clear that this event cannot take the form we had originally hoped it would and could not effectively accomplish the goals we had hoped it might.

"The CPU Executive Board voted last night not to go forward with this event."

Click here to read the entire CPU statement about the Gilchrist event.

University officials did not return calls from FOXNews.com seeking comment on the school's public-speaking policies and decisions.

But John Coatsworth, the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, said in a weekend interview with FOX News that just about anyone would be welcome to speak at the university — except the leaders of countries the United States is at war with.

As for Hitler, he said, prior to the invasion of Poland in 1939, “if Hitler were in the United States and wanted a platform from which to speak, he would have plenty of platforms to speak in the United States. If he were willing to engage in a debate and discussion, and be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.”

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger issued a lengthy statement defending the school's decision to host Ahmadinejad and said that during his introduction to the event, he would challenge the Iranian president on the following:

—the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust;

—his public call for the destruction of Israel;

—his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;

—Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanctions;

—his government's widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly women's rights;

—his government's imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia's own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.

"Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas," Bollinger said in his statement. "On occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. ...

"It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very dangers in such ideas."

Bollinger said that the "faith in freedom" is "our nation's most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best."

Click here to read the entire Columbia statement about the Iranian president event.

Gilchrist, for his part, praised Columbia's administrators and faculty but expressed disdain for students who have been able to sway the school not to invite certain visitors of whom they don't approve.

"The administration is very much for free speech. I have to commend the administration," Gilchrist said. "It's the caveman mentalities on campus that have seized control about what will be tolerated and what will not be tolerated. ... I'm ashamed of the student body there. They're showing very poor leadership."